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Democracy By Other Means

A Study of Late Medieval Popular Protest as a Manifestation of Direct Democracy

The study of European political history reveals a spectrum of social systems ranging from anarchism to absolutism, culminating during the modern era in substantially democratic forms. Today the political structures of the West are predicated on democratic ideals in varying degrees, and to appreciate how these principles came to dominate we must investigate their recent developmental history. Developmental histories are often driven by the evaluation of emperors and magnates, however when searching for the origins of modern democracy we find that its fundamental precepts were motivated not by monarchs, but by the efforts of non-elites.

In researching the democratic enterprises of ordinary people we find an exceptional resource in Samuel Cohn's primary source anthology Popular Protest in Late Medieval Europe. Close inspection of Cohn's sources demonstrates that while large-scale politics was governed by feudalism, life in townships was often regulated by localism. Locals and commoners had little or no access to official political channels, and instead exercised influence over elites using the best means available: popular protest. By such protests commoners put into action the belief that they deserved political empowerment, and therefore popular protest was a manifestation of direct democracy; or rather, democracy by other means.

In order to explain how the medieval practice of popular protest was compatible with direct democracy we will characterize the sources in Popular Protest, discuss their strengths and limitations, define the concept of direct democracy, and analyze specific documents that explicate the commensurability between protest and democracy.

The primary sources aggregated in Popular Protest were collected to help readers understand the sociopolitical implications of the Black Death. Many diverse sources are collected therein: chronicles; songs; poems; laws; civic records; diaries; and remissions. The sources span the years 1247 to 1424, and focus on what Cohn terms "a contagion of revolts." In presenting these revolts Cohn hopes to uncover who was involved, how they organized, and what ideologies were expressed. Cohn himself arrives at a number of progressive conclusions, and argues against many modern preconceptions about medieval protest. For example, Cohn targets the claim that protests were a response to food shortages by observing that in spite of famines these sources follow no such trend, but instead exhibit rising social expectations. Cohn also argues against the assertion that revolts were spontaneously raised up by nobles, and observes that protests were often organized and led by the rebels themselves. Both of Cohn's arguments are significant contributions to the hypothesis that commoners were seeking democratic sovereignty, and actualized self-governance directly by protest.

When presenting the sources in Popular Protest Cohn urges his readers to pursue objectivity, and while prospecting for immanent propositions the first question we must ask is: what facts are inescapably true? The most basic inescapable truth is that commoners in Flanders, Italy, and France regularly mounted popular protests between the years 1247 and 1424. Working from this basic truth we must then ask: what was protested? When filtering away dramatic and rhetorical language we are left with descriptions of economic issues including strikes and tax revolts, social grievances involving status and justice, and political matters such as the forcible deposition and installation of popularly sanctioned bureaucrats and laws. With respect to degrees of certainty then, the following two facts are the most objectively certain observations we may glean from these sources; (i) economic and sociopolitical issues regularly resulted in (ii) popular protest. Combining these basic observations with the reality that protest could result in excommunication, injury, or execution, we must conclude the populace persistently believed protestation was necessary as a matter of life or death. Therefore, because protesters fought for economic and sociopolitical rights, popular protest was the direct expression of a popular impulse towards democracy, and instantiated direct democracy in particular. Of crucial importance to the viability of this postulation is the fact that all author's surveyed here do not attempt elaborate justifications, but instead chronicle protest as an obvious matter of course. Whether presented by elites or non-elites, protests are reported as the expected consequence of routine social discords and frictions. In this way the claim that popular protest substantiated direct democracy is a general observation based on the asides that are not the focus of the authors, and thus provides insight into the internalized values and beliefs of the medieval populace writ large.

Before considering the relation of these sources to the claim that protest was a nascent form of democracy we must first dispense with a number of concerns, including: reliability; translation; political primacy; scope; and social standards.

With respect to reliability all documents are subject to the concern of authorship. Royal remissions may embody elite prejudices. City records may reify the biases of those with authority. Diaries, songs, and poems do not in all cases openly state the author, and comparisons reveal factual uncertainties. However, because we will be observing the wider causes and effects of protest these concerns are radically diminished. First, we shall focus on expository dialogues and not emotional language. Second, we will study the nature of protest broadly at the multi-township level, and thus avoid a limited focus on any particular set of participants or events. Here the problem of fabrication remains, however this concern is mitigated by comparative analysis.

Although the effects of fabrication are reducible, no analytic approach may entirely remove problems of translation; all sources were transposed into English, and it is possible that translational revisions occurred. Nevertheless, in the matter of translation we may reasonably presume the larger political motifs of protest have been retained, and because we will not focus on minutiae, translation errors are insignificant.

With respect to political primacy the question arises how we might contend that direct democracy existed in an environment predominated by feudalism. The answer is that such a problem does not obtain. Much of late medieval Europe was officially accountable to the Holy Roman Emperor, however the arrangements of sub-regions varied dramatically. Then as now, geopolitical areas governed by one system could contain sub-regions controlled by different structures. As regards modern examples we find the directly democratic Abahlali enduring in the constitutional democracy of South Africa, and the Homeless Workers Movement operating within the confines of the presidential republic of Brazil. Hence, political primacy presents no practical problems.

In considering popular protest we must reflect on the scope of the terms "popular" and "protest." The documents here range from disagreements involving a handful of locals to interstitial wars that spanned many years. While demarcation of the conceptual boundary that separates revolt from war may be contentious, here we shall concentrate on the actuation of protest, and thus the scale of a protest is unproblematic.

Finally, while reflecting on the practice of popular protest we must be careful not to apply modern presuppositions and standards to the medieval era. Modern nations impose functional constraints on social antagonisms and funnel conflicts into lawful institutions. During the medieval era a monopoly on violence had not yet been established and feudal rulers did not facilitate equal lawful representation for their subordinates. Both elites and non-elites initiated violence, and we must not presume that popular protest was in all cases mere mobocracy.

Having established the practicability of Popular Protest towards a study of politics and direct democracy, we must describe the tenets of direct democracy itself. Direct democracy is defined as "that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people." Under this form of democracy political authority resides directly within the congregation of constituents that meets to vet policies, elections, and judgments (as opposed to such authority residing in representatives or rulers). The three elementary tenets of direct democracy therefore inhere within a sovereign populace's power to (i) establish and ratify laws and social policies, (ii) create and abrogate civic offices and elect and recall bureaucrats, and (iii) conduct trials and determine punishments. With these three tenets in mind let us examine Popular Protest for examples in support of the claim that late medieval popular protest was an incarnation of direct democracy.

With respect to laws and policies perhaps the most common cause of protest was unwelcome taxation, and so it was that in 1301 the commoners of Bruges and Ghent dubbed an excise tax "evil money" and stormed the patrician's castle. During the uprising the protestors killed two aldermen and "compelled the rest ... to swear fidelity to them; otherwise they would have killed them all." In this manner the "commoners, thus enraged, roused, and united" were able to enact the popular will and rescind a tax that had been decreed from above without their consent.

Soon thereafter in the year 1307, the weavers, fullers, and commoners of Tournai protested against a new tax, and after beating "up the tax collectors" they "congregated and went to the city gates, where they hanged them and then threw their bodies into the moat." Following this the protestors installed "prefects, judges, and others, who would be so elected every year," and citizens "who had been exiled for life ... or had left because of fines returned." Here all three tenets of direct democracy are fulfilled; the popular determination of judgments, laws, and bureaucrats.

Not all tax revolts were successful however, as rebels in Rouen and Paris discovered when nobles suppressed their uprisings and punished participants by execution and imprisonment. Thus we observe the high stakes of protest, and appreciate that while taxes might mean economic hardship, protest might be fatal. Such dangers notwithstanding, in the examples above we see ordinary people accepting the commitment of their very lives to protest in order to express themselves politically, and participate directly in the establishment and ratification of policies.

Looking beyond taxation we find many instances of protests centering on legislation and policy enforcement, as in the battle of the Florentine magnates against the people. In 1295 "the magnates ... had become fed up with the heavy penalties levied against them by the Ordinances ... which the people had devised, and especially" the law that "proof of guilt could only come from two witnesses." The magnates conspired "to break these ordinances" by force, and prior to requesting a change in this law the magnates lined warriors up around the city. The people however "were powerful and well organized" and mounted a counter-protest in which the magnates were forced to stand down and accept the popularly endorsed ordinances. In this case it was not protest, but popular counter-protest that invoked democracy by other means.

Where the people of Florence had fought to protect existing ordinances in 1295, marginalized workers later fought for new liberties during the Ciompi uprising in 1378. The Ciompi was sparked by oppressive economic conditions, and the early successes of the Ciompi were canonized in the Petitions granted to artisans and other workers. The Petitions was a revolutionary document that dictated the dissolution of existing government, the installation of a new political system, and the enfranchisement of disentitled commoners. In materializing the decrees of this document the workers defeated the maneuvers of domineering elites, and as in the counter-protest of 1295, protestors successfully asserted themselves and effectuated democracy qua protest.

By the examples above we see how the first tenet of direct democracy is fulfilled by popular protest. Let us now examine examples of protest evincing the second tenet (the creation and abrogation of civic offices, and the election and recall of bureaucrats) beginning with a Revolt in Flanders of the people of little wealth in 1297. Leading up to this revolt the king of France had proscribed a series of increasingly demanding taxes, and following a local election in Bruges some "10,000 men, all of them people of little wealth ... attacked the castle of Malle" slaying soldiers and bourgeois, and making "a weaver named Peter their king." Thusly the local political hierarchy was overturned by popular action and placed under the control of non-elites. Here it is important to note that Peter was not installed as a monarch per se, but because he was "skilled in the arts of war" and therefore offered the people a bulwark against retribution.

Where Peter of Bruges was elected to render the services of a soldier, the new senators of Rome were appointed by the people in 1328 to render subsistence. In this case "a great food shortage [was] created by the high prices over all Italy" and set off a riot during which protestors ran down their senator. The senator attempted to retain his office but was forced to surrender "with great injury and shame." The people then "placed in power their own senators ... who from their own supplies of grain and those of other powerful Romans ordered shipments for the city market, and this quietened down the people." Thus where an existing bureaucrat proved ineffectual but refused to relinquish his office the people there amassed, discharged him, and inducted their own replacements by way of popular assembly and protest.

While individual protests provide an appreciation for the details of revolt, statistically speaking the most significant set of insurrections that demonstrate the popular impulse for democracy and self-determination is found in the rebellions of 1375. During this single year sixty towns rebelled against church control. These rebellions motivated further protests, and in the following two years some 1,577 villages renounced church authority. Documents from these protests recount the emphatic removal of cardinals and bishops of "bad rule," and the establishment of popular governments comprised of Popolo (the people) and local elders. Hardly a stronger case could be made for the connection between popular protest and the second tenet of direct democracy.

Seeing that the first and second tenets of direct democracy are satisfied by medieval popular protest, we shall now evaluate sources for examples of the third tenet; the popular power to conduct trials as well as determine and enforce punishments.

In the year 1322 a handful of elite families in Pisa were engaged in clan rivalries and imperiously ignored the rules of the city. A popular citizen was killed by a noble who acted with complete disregard for the law, and this fomented a revolt against the noble murderer and his family. Eventually another noble involved in the feud was captured "and without a trial ... dragged ... which tore him to pieces." Following this a number of nobility were exiled, and a new lord was appointed "defender of the people of Pisa." Although no official legal proceeding was held, the Pisan elite were held directly accountable to the people, who countenanced their own final justice.

As the examples above show, revolts against elite injustice were common, and in this vein we find the protest of 1367 in Viterbo, surrounding the affair of the cardinal's pretty little dog. An attendant of the cardinal was seen "washing the cardinal's pretty little dog ... in the Fountain" and an unfortunate woman who shouted at the attendant was killed for the offense. The murder "sparked others of the neighbourhood ... to take up arms and seek revenge" whereupon "they stormed the castle where the pope was in residence and ... killed many soldiers and servants of the cardinals." Here the people exacted compensation for their own loss, and though the cost was high there can be no doubt that those who worked in service of the elites were subject to a popular redaction of lex talionis.

Twenty-five years later in the town of Perugia the people took revenge directly on the nobility rather than their servants, in the popular revolt to change the regime and in support of the Church. "It did not take long for the battle ... to break the noblemen" who retreated into a "tower ... [and] would not give themselves up without certain agreements"; however, "the commune did not wish to negotiate." The nobles soon surrendered and "were bound, murdered, and thrown out of the windows." The nobles who had not been executed were then "chased out of town with all their followers." In this way, popular protest was used to enact a popular verdict and rectify the "deceit, plunder, murder, ... pillaging, thievery, adultery, violence, sacrilege, and every sort of ... evil" that had been the practice of the nobility. Thus we see here not modern jurisprudence, but medieval jurisprudence by popular means.

Having examined specific examples of protest we may now comment on protest writ large, and discuss the relation between protest, society, and politics.

Whether or not a population is conscious of its own social norms, its social interactions are in all cases governed by those rules of conduct that the population and its cultures accept as axiomatic. From such rules, perspectives and actions flow. Prior to the development of modern institutions and legal systems social rules were transmitted and normalized by other means, and when people or groups did not obey the rules they were held to account by those who held the power to enforce their chosen set of rules.

When observing the rules and practice of late medieval popular protest we discover that substantial power resided within the hands of commoners, and we see a pattern of activity that embodied a popular impulse towards democratic self-expression and self-determination. Ordinary people set aside differences when faced by (what they perceived as) common injustice, and united in order to push forward common concerns. These unities were manifest as popular protest, and by their protestations common people influenced political, economic, and social structures against the will of nobles and rulers. By popular protest, wage increases were won, laws and constitutions were redrafted, bureaucracies were overturned, and new governments were established.

Although these protests must not be construed as corresponding precisely with modern ideas of democracy, we must be sure to understand the prejudicial and elitist bent of the sociopolitical conditions that medieval non-elites were subject to. Reflection on this point reveals important similarities between medieval protest and modern democracy; rebellion was undertaken as a direct means toward political ends within a precarious context that offered few other viable forms of enfranchisement. Accordingly, late medieval popular protest was a nascent form of directly democratic politics that enfranchised non-elites, and by this observation we see it was a material antecedent of modern democracy.


Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: history, politics, violence ]

Last updated March 17, 2011